Thursday, March 5, 2009

Mistress of the Elgin Marbles

Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin was rich, headstrong, and less memorable than Emma Woodhouse.  Susan Nagel's biography of the Countess, Mistress of the Elgin Marbles tries to compare her to an Austen heroine, but Mary never seems to come alive.  One of the greatest heiresses in Regency Scotland, she married the sickly Lord Elgin (who lost his nose to treatment for what may or may not have been syphilis), followed him on his diplomatic journeys, and earned a reputation as a captivating hostess and author of charming letters.  On their return journey, Lord Elgin was imprisoned by the Revolutionary French government and while Mary negotiated his release, she fell in love with his best friend and was eventually sued for divorce.

While reading Nagel's book, I thought of Amanda Foreman's Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and the life of Mary Worley Montagu.  Perhaps Nagel is not as talented a writer as Foreman, but I think the problem lies with the subject.  Mary Nisbet just doesn't seem to have been a particularly interesting person.  Yes, she was witty and involved in a scandal, but she was not actively involved in politics like Georgiana Spencer and her letters were not published and read after her death like Mary Worley Montague.  Even her role as the Mistress of the Elgin Marbles seems inflated.  Nagel briefly discusses the Elgin Marbles and it appears that Mary's only contribution was financial.  Ultimately, the book is as forgettable as its subject.

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